Donna Clayton Lawder
If you've been to Silver City's 4th of July Parade, you know Jamie Thompson. Or at least you've seen him. He's that crazy guy biking down Bullard Street—on stilts!—with a laughing, jostling wake of enthusiastic kids of all ages following as closely as they can. You'll also see some of Thompson's kids enthusiastically riding in the Tour of the Gila's downtown community races on Saturday, May 6.
But there's a serious side to the work of this pedaling Pied Piper—a serious benefit to getting kids up on two wheels: encouraging fitness, preventing obesity and Type II diabetes, getting kids out of the house and into regular fun physical activity, away from gangs and drugs.
Yet Thompson infuses his work with "at risk" kids with his trademark "lightness of being." Pairing adult mentors with kids needing guidance and role modeling, keeping kids away from unsavory elements—it's all just another day's work for Thompson, another chance to lift someone up, have some fun, bring a smile.
"Hey, no worries," he says to a caller rescheduling an appointment, "That works for me. Hey, we'll get it done."
An unassuming guy in his 40s, Thompson has a PhD in political science and biology. Program manager for Big Brothers-Big Sisters of Grant County, he also finds the time and energy to run an after-school biking program, Cyclophilia, the local chapter of which he started up three years ago with Gary Staley of the Children, Youth and Families Department.
"I grew up riding my bike," Thompson says. "Kids these days aren't riding to school, they aren't learning to ride. They wind up overweight, and then they're depressed about their body image. They don't know how to play."
Through the program, kids over the age of seven from Silver City, Bayard, Hurley, San Lorenzo and Santa Clara get together to ride and interact with adult mentors from 3-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. According to Thompson, it's a chance to ride, socialize and "work things out in a natural way."
"We talk too much in our society," Thompson opines. "Kids learn by mimicking. We (the adult mentors in the program) just model good behavior. That's what it's all about."
When given the chance, he says, kids will "self-correct" and form healthy, functional groups, little mini-societies. He tells the story of the "bossy girls" in one biking group. One particular female contingent was always bossing the other kids around, Thompson recounts, and he was "spending way too much time yelling" to get them in line, participating properly. Giving them more responsibility "worked like a charm!" he says.
"We gave them the opportunity to be leaders in the group, and guess what? They shone! They actually started helping the littler kids, instead of just bossing them around. They became models of good behavior."
Youths can earn Community Service credits by participating in Cyclophilia, and "without stigma," Thompson says, as "nobody else knows why they're there. We're all just riding together." In their "spare time," the group sometimes engages in specific community service-related activities, like making and repairing trails.
The kids, happy to have someplace to go and something fun to do after school, can't seem to get enough, and are responding in impressive numbers. Several of the groups, particularly in the mining district where kids participate through the Cobre After School Program, have up to 100 kids participating.
Regular events for Cyclophilia include riding in the 4th of July Parade, Silver City's Lighted Christmas Parade, and at the Red Hot Children's Fiesta in Silver City's Community Built Park, called Penny Park by locals.
Thompson says the program has had good community support, with Phelps Dodge in particular being a stalwart supporter for years. The group also gets free or reduced products like bike helmets from Bell, Goo tire repair goop, and Specialized brand bike accessories. Grant County Orthopedics is a main sponsor.
The New Mexico Police Athletic League donates materials and transportation costs. The Juvenile Parole & Probation Office Children Youth and Families early prevention program helps out financially with staff salaries. The Town of Silver City, Cobre Consolidated Schools, Continental Divide Tour and even the Optimist Club of Las Cruces, to name just a few, lend a hand in one way or another. Locally, Gila Hike & Bike offers gear and mechanical support.
With his characteristic lightness, Thompson says getting kids on bikes is a "huge" thing, and at the same time "no big thing."
The social scientist in Thompson pokes out its head. "Most of our lives are defined by numbers—income, needs. And we come to think that's who we are. But we are fundamentally social beings," he says. "Social lines (of identity and connection) should be first, numerical second."
He pauses, then adds, "Heck, this just makes me happy."